Captains Courageous (1896-7), Rudyard Kipling’s short second novel, is a pure boys’ book. It does not transcend its genre or undermine the conventions. It is, or would have been if I had read it as a boy, Improving. Too late now, I fear.
Harvey is a poshie, son of a self-made American millionaire (railroads, steamships), falls off a passenger ship into the Atlantic, where he is rescued by a fishing boat. The fishing captain refuses to interrupt the catch, in part because he thinks Harvey is delusional about the whole “millionaire father” business, in part because that is not how things are done. Harvey overcomes his petulance and joins the crew, where he does honest work, acquires practical skills (knots, for example), overcomes his class prejudices, and learns to appreciate useful work.
If I mock, I mock myself more than the book. My respect for what Kipling was doing began to rise about a third of the way into the book as I began to suspect that there would be no big plot twist, no big surprises, and no implausible adventures. Nothing Treasure Island-ish. The only truly unlikely event is the first one, Harvey’s rescue. Then Kipling writes seven detailed chapters about the ordinary life of cod fisherman off the Grand Banks of Newfoundland (there are two chapters of epilogue I will ignore for a bit).
Songs, jokes, work, fish, fog, sailing, rowing. Readers who hate any talk of staysails and foc’sles will find Captains Courageous unreadable. Some of the ordinary events are actually extraordinary – Harvey witnesses the sinking of two fishing vessels, for example, one sunk by a passenger liner, the other by incompetence – but they are all within the bounds of plausibility. Kipling does not cheat much. Harvey does not – what would be a good adventure novel climax? – save the ship during the hurricane by means of his pluck and new skill with knots. He just becomes and remains one of the crew.
Here the crew is cleaning and salting the day’s catch:
Down below, the rasping sound of rough salt rubbed on rough flesh sounded like the whirring of a grindstone – a steady undertune to the "click-nick" of knives in the pen; the wrench and shloop of torn heads, dropped liver, and flying offal; the "caraaah" of Uncle Salters's knife scooping away backbones; and the flap of wet, opened bodies falling into the tub. (Ch. II)
So the other thing that caught my eye – or ear, in this case – early on was the writing, Kipling’s vigorous style.
Let me find another one. Near the end of the novel, Harvey’s ship joins a hundred others at a spot where the cod are so thick they leap out of the water:
The sea round them clouded and darkened, and then frizzed up in showers of tiny silver fish, and over a space of five or six acres the cod began to leap like trout in May; while behind the cod three or four broad grey-black backs broke the water into boils. (Ch. VIII)
Then the fishermen in their boats try to grab the cod out of the air with nets, all while avoiding the whales (those grey-black backs) and each other. What an adventure!
From every boat dories [the rowboats] were dropping away like bees from a crowded hive… The schooners rocked and dipped at a safe distance, like mother ducks watching their brood, while the dories behaved like mannerless ducklings. (Ch. VIII)
Now I am just wallowing in the metaphors, avoiding what the book is really about: Death and Thomas Carlyle. That’ll be fun for tomorrow, hmm? Maybe I will say something about zhiv’s fine piece on Captains Courageous, too. “[I]t would bore kids on its own” he says, correctly. Plenty of adults, too.